“People are people/Not a single one equal/Respectfully different/ and they’re all the same” sings Josef William Back, the 22 year old from Garston penning his musical creations as ALTAR.
His debut EP Sea of Fog, which was released in October of last year, is a project built from “tender, existential angst” and Back’s own attempt at self-transcendence within the frame of post-punk. He places the importance of hearing a song for the first time, having your thoughts and emotions articulated, harmonised and understood as part of something bigger. “You’re no longer so alone, or individual. Without music, life would be a mistake”, he says while referencing his favourite philosopher, “…but for once I don’t think you need Fredrich Nietzsche to know that.”
Spending his time in lockdown painting, reading and writing, Back reflects on the importance of isolation on his inner creative: “It’s been important for me,” he says, “to have been forced into a situation where I can detach and think long-term about what I’m doing with my life and what I’m creating.” Many of his songs are devised of impressionistic lyrics, abstract odes to the women in his life; those surrounding him who have kept him going mentally, and musically. Take Template for example, as he sings “Some have died inside these walls/Some have wasted time/Some have made a party of it,” Back explores his sense of self while reflecting on the people in his life. “I think it takes a high level of vulnerability and an ability to empty yourself of everything non-essential,” he explains. “To get to the point where you can focus on a feeling enough to capture something special; it’s not something I can force or just do when I want to.”
Using his music as emotive freedom, he labels this build up as a “compulsive release when dealing with emotions and ideas that are too big for me to keep inside.”
Although music wasn’t something Josef thought of exploring for himself, he’s always loved it, and appreciates “The state of flow it gets you into, whether that’s through an instrument or singing.” He recollects a time around the age of 11 spent with his friend Molly, who introduced him to the drums and how to play 4:4. The two would put on gigs for their parents and siblings, drawing up fake ticket stubs and putting her little brother in charge with the important role of ‘bouncer’. “We called ourselves something daft like Death Star. Everyone got shot with a foam blaster at various points of the set” he recalls of his early days playing rockstar.
At the age of 16, Back sold his drum kit, which he had played for several years after his first exposure to it. “When I moved to London, I didn’t do music for a while. One morning at my friend and fellow artist Myles Morgan’s house, I was woken up to him shoving a microphone in my face, asking me to try and sing a few lines on a riff he had recorded.”
Suspecting that Myles may have heard him singing Frank Sinatra in a drunken stupor the night before, Back has only his friends to thank for helping him believe it was actually something he could do. “Myles was dead happy with it, but it was my friend Rhett Nicol, another musician, who helped me believe in myself. Both those guys were instrumental in me having this creative outlet. They both make really good music themselves.”
Back draws his attention to an Amazing Snakeheads gig in Camden’s Electric Ballroom at the height of their career as the gig that inspired him. “I was 17 and the crowd was just as nuts as frontman Dale. I remember really moshing out and crowd surfing. It’s still one of the best nights of my life and I feel really lucky to have seen them. I think of Dale Barclay, who died a few years later at the young age of 32, and that night often.”
His favourite piece of music to play, an unreleased track called The Man That Never Existed, Back reaches deep into his psyche. “It’s me channelling an [Albert] Camus-esque muse, a man that you will never be able to see when looking back at history because he’s not a creator or a destroyer, a bully or a victim, a hero or a coward. He’s just a selfless lover and I don’t think those guys make history,” he continues. “I think they disappear somewhere with their sweethearts and just enjoy life, or maybe get rejected and just roam the earth letting the love they have inside spill out onto everyone and everything else they come into contact with.”
For Back, Altar is the ego that speaks from his soul, the friction that gives life to his stories. “What incites me to write most,” he tells me, “is what I’m going through personally, always, and that can be a whole array of different things, sometimes it’s what I’m feeling and thinking in the moment. Sometimes it’s what I feel like I need to feel or think in order to be okay with myself or the world.” This serves as a continuum in his story to which Back as Altar takes inspiration. The women that are, or have been in his life – his daughter, his mum and ex-girlfriends – are deeply ingrained at the centre of the Altar project; their influence becomes a part of the narrative woven within his songwriting. “I’m really lucky that I have music,” he admits, “otherwise I think I’d be very destructive or would have numbed myself out somehow.”
Sea of Fog is out now.
Enjoy? Sign up to the weekly Bido Bulletin newsletter to get all our stories, news, playlists, competitions and more direct to your inbox